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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Romney’s Food Stamp Stretch

Mitt Romney claims President Barack Obama caused a doubling of able-bodied persons on food stamps by taking “work out of the food stamps requirement.” That’s an exaggeration. All but four states had already received waivers from specific work requirements for some or all of their residents before Obama became president.

The total number of persons getting food stamps is up 46 percent since Obama took office, a big jump but far short of a doubling. Romney is referring only to single, childless adults of working age, who normally qualify for food stamps for only three months unless they work part-time or live in areas where jobs are scarce or unemployment tops 10 percent.

The number of those single adults getting food stamps did double about the same time that Obama granted a blanket suspension of that work requirement for 18 months as part of his 2009 stimulus law. But the Bush administration had already granted waivers covering some or all of 46 states and the District of Columbia, and more waiver requests were pending as the economy tanked. And despite the rise under Obama, these working-age adults without dependents still made up less than one in 10 on food stamps.

Romney made the misleading food stamp claim after standing by a false campaign ad that claimed Obama had instituted “a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements.” We found that ad to be wrong, and we even quoted a Republican who was instrumental in the 1996 legislation as saying the “gut welfare” claim was “very misleading.” But Romney stood by that ad — he claimed the campaign had been “absolutely spot on. And any time there’s anything that’s been amiss, we correct it or remove it.”

The campaign couldn’t give CNN an example of it correcting or removing any ads, and we can’t recall that happening either. Romney then went on to talk about food stamps:

Romney, CNN interview, Sept. 25: Look, it has been shown time and again that the president’s effort to take work requirement out of welfare is a calculated move, the same thing he did with regards to food stamps. He took work out of welfare in the — excuse me — work out of the food stamps requirement. And what was the result? The study shows that twice as many people went from having food stamps to those that are able-bodied … as a result of that change.

Those receiving benefits from what’s officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program totaled 46.7 million in June 2012. As we wrote in an earlier piece, the increase in SNAP participation in recent years is largely due to the economic downturn and sluggish recovery. Statistics also show less reluctance from Americans in applying for such aid.

In 2008, three times as many recipients were added to the SNAP rolls as was the case the year before. The recession began in December 2007. That’s before Obama took office and some indication of how the economy affected participation.

Waiving a Requirement

But Obama did waive a work requirement for a small percentage of food stamp recipients — adults, age 18-49, without dependents. They are known as Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDs) in U.S. Department of Agriculture parlance, and they made up an estimated 9.7 percent of SNAP recipients for fiscal 2010, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

Food stamp recipients have to meet other work requirements — they have to register for work with the state, participate in a training program if assigned by the state, and accept offers of employment. They also cannot quit “without good cause” a job of 30 or more hours per week. But due to a provision in the 1996 welfare overhaul law, this particular group of adults without dependents faces additional requirements for SNAP. They are limited to three months of food stamps in a 36-month period unless they work 20 hours a week, or spend the same number of hours in a job training or a SNAP “workfare” program. (Even if they are disqualified, however, these adults without dependents can resume benefits if they work or participate in job training for 80 hours in a 30-day period. And other stipulations enable some to receive up to six months of benefits in that three-year period without working.)

Obama waived the 20-hour work requirement for all states as part of the stimulus law, or American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. That waiver covered April 2009 through Sept. 30, 2010. SNAP beneficiaries who were offered a position in a work program by a state had to accept that offer – otherwise, they would still be subject to the normal time limit. States didn’t have to accept the waiver, and a few areas continued to enforce the time limit.

The Romney campaign points to the Sept. 14 Congressional Research Service report that shows the number of adults without dependents receiving SNAP doubled from 1.9 million in fiscal year 2008 to 3.9 million in 2010. But as we said recently when Obama boasted of a doubling of wind and solar energy, the percentage increase doesn’t sound as impressive when considered in context. These able-bodied adults make up a small percentage of food stamp recipients. They went from an estimated 6.9 percent of SNAP beneficiaries in fiscal 2008 to 9.7 percent in 2010.

The question is, how much of this increase can be attributed to the stimulus law’s waiver of the 20-hour-a-week work requirement?

There is evidence that it may not have had much of an impact, as many areas in the country already had waivers for the work requirement. USDA officials have been able to grant states and counties waivers ever since the rules were enacted in 1996. Waivers have been granted if unemployment in the area exceeded 10 percent, or if the area “does not have a sufficient number of jobs to provide employment for the individuals,” according to a 2004 USDA memo. For instance, if a state had been eligible for extended unemployment benefits within the past year, USDA said, “we will approve a waiver.”

A law signed by President Bush in November 2008 also expanded the criteria under which states could provide extended unemployment benefits. States that qualified for extended benefits were also eligible for these SNAP waivers. Because of the 2008 unemployment law alone, 32 states and the District of Columbia, plus the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, were automatically eligible for waivers by Feb. 15, 2009, a few days before Obama signed the stimulus bill into law.

According to an official USDA list dated Jan. 8, 2009, days before Obama took office, only Delaware, Iowa, New Hampshire and Vermont were listed as having no current waivers. Bush administration officials had granted waivers for the entire states of Alaska, California, Louisiana, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island and South Carolina, plus the District of Columbia and the territories of Guam and the Virgin Islands. Also, all 88 counties in Ohio had waivers that wouldn’t expire until June 30, 2010.

In other states, waivers had been granted for specific counties or other jurisdictions. Arizona had waivers for three cities and towns, 12 counties and five Indian reservations, for example. Georgia had been granted waivers for 68 counties and had just applied for a statewide waiver, a request that was listed as “pending.” Kentucky had waivers for 93 counties and also had applied for a statewide waiver as well. All told, 46 states, the District of Columbia, Guam and the Virgin Islands had received waivers that covered all or parts of those jurisdictions.

Showing Cause and Effect?

Romney said that the CRS study showed that the increase in able-bodied adults occurred “as a result of that change,” meaning the president’s blanket waiver. But the CRS report says it can’t determine how many of these adults without dependents would have faced the three-month limit if the stimulus law’s waiver hadn’t existed.

CRS: The information on the employment status of SNAP participants, as reported by the states, is not of sufficient quality to make accurate estimates of those who faced or might have faced the ABAWD time limits. … It is not possible to accurately show how many either worked or participated in a work activity for at least 20 hours per week.

What the CRS report does show, however, is that the percentage of these adults that reported earning money from employment remained largely unchanged from 2008 to 2010. And the percentage living in households that reported earnings also did not change. In fact, these percentages went up slightly.

So, this category of food stamp recipients continued to receive some wages at the same rate as it did before the 20-hour-a-week work requirement was waived by the stimulus law. But, again, CRS was unable to determine how many would have been subject to a limit of SNAP benefits if the stimulus law’s blanket waiver hadn’t existed.

States could have continued to enforce the time limits, and a few areas did so. CRS reported that Delaware and New York City, and portions of Colorado, South Dakota and Texas continued to impose the three-month-limit if these adults didn’t work part-time.

Obama tried to extend the stimulus law’s broad waiver in subsequent budget requests, but Congress didn’t approve that. In 2011, the administration argued that extending the waiver would “improve ABAWDs’ access to nutritious food” and “improve the administration of the program by reducing waiver workload” — in other words, reducing paperwork. It said that with unemployment as it was, large portions of the U.S. would qualify for waivers anyway.

Since the end of the stimulus law’s suspension of the work requirement, the vast majority of states have been eligible for an automatic waiver based on unemployment benefits being extended. For fiscal 2011 and 2012, according to the CRS report, 47 states had such a waiver.

The Big Picture

Food stamp participation has increased under Obama. A new Romney campaign ad says that “15 million more are on food stamps,” and that’s nearly the case. The number is 14.7 million. That’s the same increase that occurred under President George W. Bush, but over just three-and-a-half years instead of eight.

As we said in an earlier piece, much of the increase under both presidents is due to the economy. But legislation enacted under both Bush and Obama has had some impact. In late 2008, the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act (known as the farm bill) increased benefits and eligibility. Bush vetoed the bill, citing excessive farm subsidies not SNAP, but Congress overrode the veto with bipartisan support. (Only 12 Republicans and two Democrats voted to keep the veto.) And as we’ve explained, the stimulus law enabled adults without dependents to continue to receive benefits without working. That law also increased benefit levels — a family of four’s benefits increased by $80 per month.

In addition, USDA officials said that there is less reluctance to apply for food stamps among the public. So while eligibility has increased — both due to legislation and the economy — so, too, has the participation rate. Only 54 percent of those who were eligible for aid signed up for it in 2002, but the figure in 2009 was 72 percent. State governments have taken steps to make applying for aid easier, and, since 2004, food stamps come in the form of a plastic card, like a credit card, easing the stigma of handing over paper food stamps at the grocery store.

But Romney’s comments to CNN are an exaggeration: While the number of able-bodied adults without dependents on food stamps did double from 2008 to 2010, nearly all states were receiving a full or partial waiver from work requirements before Obama took office. It’s unclear how much of an impact the stimulus law’s waiver had.

— Lori Robertson